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Published July 8, 2014

Tim’s Vermeer is a brand spanking new documentary film by stage and television duo Penn and Teller. The film follows the inventor Tim Jenison’s efforts to replicate one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings using only techniques that were available to the Dutch master at the time. The crux of the film is a dissection of what it means to be an artist, and whether or not there’s room in that definition for the use of technology. But more on that later.

The painting techniques of Vermeer and the other Dutch Masters are somewhat controversial. Have a look at the painting below. Okay, now consider this painting is astonishingly realistic, and almost photorealistic. Hardly an artist’s impression. Check out the lighting transition against the wall (look carefully, there’ll be a quiz later), they are astoundingly accurate, way beyond what any ordinary artist could do with just their memory and their hand. But Vermeer was an enigmatic and mysterious figure. In an age where becoming an artist was all about your credentials, Vermeer rocked up to his local Dutch artists guild at 21 years of age with no formal training and started knocking out paintings the calibre of what you see in front of you. So was he a miraculous savant or something else?

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The art-history establishment has long maintained that the works of Vermeer were painted just using his uncanny eye and nothing more (Hello? Some oil paints were probably involved). This film follows Inventor Tim Jenison’s mildly obsessive pursuit of replicating the unfathomable detail and quality of Vermeer’s works using his own run-of-the-mill eyes and some optical devices that (scandalously) might have assisted Vermeer in 16th century Holland.

Jenison is an interesting feller to have as the centrepiece character of a film that is undoubtedly about aesthetics and where the artwork is entirely capable of carrying the film on its own. Jenison is absolutely charming, with the folksy passion of a high school science teacher who rises above the day-to-day grind, broadcasting his abundant love of science and teaching purely for the thrill of learning something new, and then imparting that knowledge onto impressionable youngsters. He is a constant tinkerer; and despite making a sizeable fortune in digital video hardware and software innovations, he would not look out of place flicking through a Jaycar catalogue on a packed commuter mass transit system, like a train or something.

So Jenison sets to work to dissect the work of Vermeer and notices something quite extraordinary; remember the light against the wall? Jenison analyses the colour transition and discovers something quite astounding, “he got the values right,” meaning the color values. “Vermeer got it right in ways that the eye couldn’t see. It looked to me like Vermeer was painting in a way that was impossible”. Basically the unaided human eye cannot register the transitions to the level of detail that Vermeer put onto canvas. For a minute I began wondering if Vermeer was a mutant with a sort of boring (but artistically incredible) superpower, then I remembered this is serious documentary, and X-Men is fiction. The rest of the film is an exploration of Jenison’s ingenious apparatuses that are deployed to try and mimic the astonishing photo-like accuracy of Vermeer’s work.

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There is a modern idea floated in the film that art and science are separate pursuits entirely and never the twain shall meet, but Tim’s Vermeer demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case now, nor may it have been the dominant view during Vermeer’s time. This film raises an interesting question: to what degree does this information affect the value of Vermeer’s works? The answer is not entirely clear but if you care to speculate, have an interest in art-history or generally are a bit obsessive and enjoy watching a grown man painting dots for weeks on end then you will relish all that is Tim’s Vermeer.

Oh, before I forget! For those familiar with Penn and Teller you’ll undoubtedly be aware that Teller is the ever mute straight man of the act, well this film features the compelling narration of Teller himself! Teller actually speaks! That alone is worth the price of admission.

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